Austin Film Fest ’11: Caroline Thompson Talks Nightmares of the “Before Christmas” and Hollywood Varieties



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With just 10 films under her belt and undoubtedly more on the way, it might’ve seemed a bit early to honor Caroline Thompson with this year’s Austin Film Festival Distinguished Screenwriter Award, but you knew within minutes of her conversation with “Moll Flanders” writer/director Pen Densham, she had quite a story to tell.

Best known for her collaborations with Tim Burton on “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Thompson was incredibly candid about her career, life in general and how the two have intertwined. While she would later discuss how she’s less inclined to dissect her work, amused when saying the night before she frustrated Elvis Mitchell at a screening of “Scissorhands” by pleading to ambivalence to his insistence that the film was all about innocence, Thompson summed up her entire oeuvre this way, “I think I was a dog in another life and all my films are about being a dog” before adding, “the good ones are all about being a dog.”

After all, Thompson based the character of Edward Scissorhands directly on the dog she had at the time and throughout the hour-long conversation, she constantly referred back to her love of animals, evidenced from her underappreciated directorial efforts “Black Beauty” and “Buddy.” A self-described “horse rider who writes for a living,” Thompson had no trouble discussing her closeness to species other than her own, particularly since she related how she had difficulty identifying with her own family.

“I come from very square people,” Thompson said of her early life in Washington D.C. “Then I discovered LSD. It’s like an instant Buddha experience if you have a good [trip]. It let me know I had an imagination I could move into.”

Once an intern at the D.C. bureau of the Los Angeles Times, Thompson realized that journalism wasn’t in her cards when she wasn’t excited by the Watergate scandal that invigorated the rest of the newsroom on her watch and felt the need to move to L.A. “to get as far away from my family as I could.”

“Life is not a process of self-discovery, it’s a process of self-creation,” Thompson said, retracing her steps from writing her first novel “First Born,” which she called a “grueling experience” and not entirely successful, though it did grab the attention of Burton, who hired her to pen “Scissorhands” at a time when he was untouchable following the success of “Batman.” She believes that’s why such an unusual script had such a smooth development period, the only hitch she could remember being when Tom Cruise was in talks for the role that ultimately cemented Johnny Depp’s status as a movie star. Cruise couldn’t get his head around a particular problem Scissorhands might have. “As filmmakers, we could never answer the question of how he went to the bathroom,” Thompson confessed.

She recalled Donna Roth, the then-wife of former Fox studio head Joe Roth, telling her, “At least, you’ll always have one,” after a screening of “Scissorhands,” and it wasn’t long before Thompson realized that her experience was an anomaly. Although she carved out a reputation as the writer of clever family-friendly films that didn’t speak down to children, it was never as easy to get her films through the studio process. She was hired for “The Addams Family” and was “delighted to be fired” right after the first table read and had a less enjoyable time on “Homeward Bound,” a film she originated when she approached Disney with the idea of adapting Sheila Burnford’s novel “The Incredible Journey,” which had already been produced for television as part of “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Her reward was getting fired from the production four times, only learning that it was getting made when her then-boyfriend Danny Elfman was asked to write the score.

Thompson also recounted how Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the head of the studio, tested “Homeward Bound” for his children, who weren’t impressed enough to stay through the whole film since they had a tennis lesson to attend. The result was nearly everyone on the production was fired, including the original voice cast of Donald Sutherland, Jon Cryer and Annie Potts, which was convenient since the movie about two anthopomorphic dogs and a cat who cross the country together to reunite with their owner could be easily fixed after it was shot because it was mostly nature footage. In spite of the bitter memories, Thompson said, in a good way, it’s still the only film of hers that “makes me cry over and over.” (Surprisingly, she mentioned her TV-bound adaptation of “Snow White” that in 2001 was “my best directed work.”)

She wasn’t as charitable when she discussed some of her more recent work. Though she and Johnny Depp are clearly on good terms, since the actor came to town to present her with the AFF award (video here), Thompson said she was fired early off “The Corpse Bride,” her last collaboration with the actor and Tim Burton and didn’t name anyone in particular, but felt she was “betrayed” and has never seen the finished film. She put the blame on herself for another animated project, “High in the Clouds,” which was to be based on a children’s book co-written by Paul McCartney.

“I didn’t have an idea in my head,” Thompson said, admitting to only taking the job to meet the former Beatle. “I did get to have tea with Sir Paul and I quit the project the next day.”  

One job she isn’t quitting soon is adapting Melissa Marr’s fantasy novel “Wicked Lovely,” although she said she nearly met the ax on that as well when a previous “unnamed” director who had been attached to the project had tried to sabotage her version while writing a script of her own on the side. Thompson praised the film’s producer Vince Vaughn for taking the unusual step of retaining the screenwriter when the project went into turnaround at Universal, not the director. She also lamented the scripts of hers that have piled up – a Nikola Tesla biopic, her adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (which Tom Tykwer ultimately made his own version of) – that will likely go unmade.

Although Thompson has sworn off directing herself, citing her desire to stay home on her ranch, she and her husband Steve Nicolaides, whom she met when he served as a producer on “Buddy,” have found a new project to work on together, Small and Creepy Films, a site that introduces new talent in the same vein as Thompson’s work.

“I was a snob about creativity when I was younger,” she said, humbly dismissing the notion that she had a leg up in some way. “Everything you do is a creative act.”

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